Monday, 29 January 2018

Pallacinae – Rome’s Lost District

In AD104, Rome faced yet another fire, probably the worst since the one Nero supposedly started fifty years previously. St Jerome remembered it three hundred years later in his cell at Bethlehem. At the very least, it destroyed part of the Domus Aurea of Nero.

Was this an accident, the sort of thing that happens to ancient cities which were often jerry-built and overcrowded? Or was there a public intent?

The area destroyed was the district of Pallacinae, which underlies the Forum of Trajan. Once it had been an elite district on the edge of the city. A chunk of it had once been the suburban villa of Sextus Roscius, who many will remember was the client of Cicero in the famous murder trial Pro Roscio Amerino in 80BC. Roscius was accused of murdering his father (who had the same name), but the case was trumped up so that the dictator Sulla could seize his estate. Although Cicero won his case, which made his reputation, the Roman government never returned Roscius’ land. The estate of Roscius was close to an ancient set of baths, the Balneal Pallacinae, a place which prostitutes often gathered, according to the very much later Liber Pontificalis.

In 38BC, the ally of Augustus, Asininus Pollio, acquired the authority to rebuild the district of Pallacinae. He use the proceeds of looting Illyria in the civil wars to demonstrate his power and authority. He built houses, flats, shops, two libraries, one Latin, one Greek, and most importantly of all the Atrium Libertatis, the hall of liberty.

This was where the Censor’s office moved to, probably because the previous offices had been damaged in the civil wars. Besides the official census, the lustrum, the Censor was responsible for two important functions of the state. The first was the registration of the manumission of slaves. Official diplomas were issued to manumitted slaves, not least to enrol them as citizens, and prevent any attempt to enslave them by prior owners. As citizens, of course, they were liable for taxes.

The other function of the Censor was to issue tickets which entered the holder into the annona, the dole, originally of corn, which would then be collected from an office in the Forum Boarium, which is close to the Aventine Hill, which had the temple of Ceres, close to the location of large grain stores (horrea) and the mills which produced much of Rome’s flour, themselves close to the wharves where imported grain was unloaded.

Augustus abolished the ancient post of Censor and took the administration of the annona in house. This doesn’t mean of course that the Atrium Libertatis ceased to run things; the dole was handled by a praefectus annonae and his deputy. Since the prefect was a largely honorific position and indeed a political one, the regular staff would have been left to their own devices, and probably used the existing offices. The marble pan of Rome shows an Atrium Libertatis  as the southern wing of Trajan’s Basilica Ulpia.

Plan of Basilica Ulpia with Atrium Libertatis marked

In AD104, the area seems to have been consumed by fire. Was this an accident? Trajan may have had a role in this. It was his custom to change his consuls very frequently, and in every year apart from 104, there were about five holders of the consul prior and four or five consules posterior. Not in 104, when one man held each consulship for the entire year. In that year, one of the consuls was Marcus Asininus Marcellus, the great grandson of  the same man who had rebuilt Pallacinae in 38BC.

Historians don’t like coincidences, and it’s too much of a coincidence that a Pollio built the quarter of Pallacinae and his descendent happened to be consul when it burnt down. I think that Trajan wanted the old quarter razed, and had Pollio made consul posterior, the first Pollio in 150 years to be raised to the consulship, to buy his approval.

Why did Trajan arrange for the vicus of Pallacinae to be destroyed? It was nearly 150 years old and had survived the Neronian fire and the urbanisation of the entire city area. The Domus Aurea had already encroached on the district, and needed to be expunged. My speculation is that Trajan and his architect Apollodorus of Damascus wanted an ambitious new district to emerge, one fired by the admiration that Trajan clearly had for all things Syrian. He had largely grown up there as his father was the governor of Syria, and as a young man Trajan had commanded troops as a military tribune there.

My guess is that while the fire was severe and may have been more widespread than intended, it was set by the imperial authorities with intent to remove it and permit for the last time an emperor to make his mark on the city’s infrastructure.

Apollodorus was an experienced architect, and had worked for Domitian, but had continued under Nerva and Trajan, including his bridge across the Danube to further Trajan’s Dacian campaign. He seems to have designed the entire precinct, including the Baths of Trajan, the Forum of Trajan, the Market of Trajan,  the Column of Trajan, the two libraries and the Basilica Ulpia.

The Markets of Trajan

 There is a story in Cassius Dio (Book 46) that once when Hadrian, who fancied himself as a bit of designer too, came to Trajan while he was in a meeting with Apollodorus with his latest designs and the latter told him to take his ‘pumpkins’ and go away. These would be orientally influenced domes and the like. The result might well have been like the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, build for the Prince Regent in Mughal style by the English seaside. Hadrian remembered the slight and later, when emperor, had Apollodorus executed.

Royal Pavilion Brighton, built for the Prince Regent, Later King George IV

 The builders were quite probably the Haterii, Rome’s top master building firm. They had already constructed a temple for Domitian in Rome, possibly the Temple of Isis and Serapis, both Hellenistic deities. You can see in this picture the barley-sugar twists of the columns, ideas that would find full expression on the Column of Trajan some thirty years later.

Tomb of the Haterii, Rome's master builders, now in the Vatican Museum

 The unusual thing about the Column of Trajan was that the emperor was buried at the foot of the temple, although the room in the base was looted centuries ago and his ashes lost. Unusual, in that he was the only one to be buried within the sacred boundary, the pomerium, which was otherwise banned on grounds of hygiene. Of course, as Rome expanded, so did the pomerium, so there must have been ancient burials placed outside the limit of its day, but which later fell within it.

The Column of Trajan, now topped with a renaissance statue of St Michael

 Not only was Trajan the late emperor, he had died on his way back from Antioch in Syria and been burnt at Tarsus, so he was hardly a health risk. The burial is reported by Cassius Dio, Aurelius Victor and Eutropius, and therefore probably featured in the official (but now lost) history of Rome, known as KG (for Kaisergeschichte)

Apollodorus fell out of favour with Hadrian soon after the death of Trajan. He was exiled and then executed. While Dio put this down to the revenge of Hadrian to an earlier slight, as mentioned above, there is a possibility of fraud. After Apollodorus, all bricks used in the construction of public works at Rome in Hadrian’s reign carried a stamp with the names of the current consuls, so that they could be dated. The suspicion could therefore be that the imperial treasury was being billed for the same goods on multiple occasions, and someone – Apollodorus perhaps – was pocketing the proceeds of it.

Many will remember the Third Satire of Juvenal, in which Umbricius, the shadow man, speaks to Romans listening in the street around his house why he’s leaving the city. You’ll probably remember that ‘I cannot abide, Quirites, a Greek-struck Rome (Graecam urbem, in the Accusative). Juvenal makes it clear that it’s not classical Greece he hates, but one dominated by Syrians.

For Umbricius, it’s the Orontes, the river which flows from Apollodorus’ home city of Damascus to Trajan’s favoured city of Antioch. which is dropping its dregs into the Tiber. The poem is dated to Trajan’s reign. Syria had been associated with popular culture already, with the aphorist Publius Syrus leading the way.

In fact, there had been a rising influence from Syria upon the Roman World. From the Roman invasion of 168BC to support the revolt of the Jews against their Hellenised Syrian overlords, who wanted to turn the Temple at Jerusalem into one dedicated to Zeus. This revolt, famously led by the Maccabee brothers and reported in the Hebrew Book of Maccabees, was an excellent pretext for Rome to engage with a weaker state within the Hellenistic east. The battles against Mithridates of Pontus would later show Rome was potentially weaker. The conquest of Syria led to the annexation of the Kingdom of Pergamum in 133BC (creating instability, the murder of Tiberius Gracchus and ultimately the collapse of the Republic).

By contrast, the second century AD is one is rising Syrian influence in the Empire, which is why it had upset Juvenal through his mouthpiece Umbricius, as he lists a catalogue of Syrian things he objects to.

However, this was the century in which Apuleius, the Syrian writer Lucan and other Hellenistic writers of the Second Sophistic thrived, in which the Syrian Empress Julia Domna ran a dazzling literary salon, and ended, with a bang in the first quarter of the third century with the emperor Elagabalus.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Bloomberg SPACE: Rewriting Roman London?

In October 2017, a major exhibition space opens under Bloomberg LLP’s new European headquarters. Called ‘London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE’, it returns to its find-site the Third Century Temple of Mithras, excavated in 1954 by Grimes (Grimes, 1968); see also Shepherd (1998). The demolition of Bucklersbury House in 2005 permitted further investigation in 2010-14 by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA). Bloomberg, a major US financial data firm, bought the land in 2010, when the archaeology was already underway and from the outset intended to display finds in a dedicated exhibition space  (Symonds, 2013 p.17).

Interviews in 2013 were framed almost entirely by studies of the structure of the site, dubbed ‘London’s Pompeii’. The emphasis was on ‘star finds’ of artefacts used as landfill, with waterlogged conditions accidentally preserving wood, leather shoes)and wicker (Symonds, 2013, p.16). There was however a paragraph about some wooden tablets with text, one of which had been translated (Symonds (2013) p.17).

Little more was written until a major Current Archaeology article, again by Matthew Symonds (Symonds, 2016) prepared as part of a major Public Relations exercise by Bloomberg. On 1 June 2016, besides Symond’s article, there was a major new entry by MOLA (’s-oldest-hand-written-documents-released) and a major article by National Geographic magazine (

Symonds’ 2016 article makes no mention of any artefacts except the texts, now dubbed ‘the Bloomberg Tablets’. The MOLA webpage includes a glossy video and a plug for the £32 book (Tomlin (2017)). The excavations are termed ‘Bloomberg Excavations’, although mostly completed before Bloomberg bought the site.

The problem with the foregrounding of the texts over the site is the texts are not from a sealed context, unlike the Vindolanda Tablets (Bowman, 1998). They were tipped in as discarded material over many years. Their value was as landfill, not as text.

Commerce has long funded permanent structures (e.g. Courtauld Institute, Tate Gallery, Sainsbury Centre, Norwich), but didn’t own the buildings. Sponsorship by newspapers was commonplace (White and Barker (1998) on Wroxeter, Cunliffe (1998) on Fishbourne), driven by a need for spectacular Roman finds, the ‘rush to Roman’ over archaeological value. Martin Millett comments that ‘Londinium is now probably both the most extensively and best-excavated major town of the Roman world ‘ (Millett, 2016, p.1692) but bemoans the absence of academic studies of sites, unpublished ‘grey literature’.

Bloomberg had not been involved in the vacant site, which had once been earmarked for Schroeders until 2010 (Entertainment Business Newsweekly 26/12/2010) but took it on, knowing the implications. The 501C3 US charitable structure expects rapid outlays to prove charitable, tax-deductable, intent.

There are two issues to consider from the Bloomsberg exhibition. First, unlike museum sponsorship, the display will be in the Bloomberg European Headquarters, designed by Norman Foster, rather than in the Museum of London; the Bloomberg building is designed to last a hundred years and the exhibition is permanent. It was already decided in 2013 that this would be so (Symonds 2013, pN), indicating this was not a decision that emerged over time, but was in place when Bloomberg bought the site.

In 2013, the emphasis was not on the writing tablets, only one of which had then been translated (Symonds, 2013); rather the research at that time was very much about the Walbrook riverfront. By 2016, the emphasis had changed strongly in favour of the texts (Symonds, 2016). I would ascribe this to the interests and agenda of Bloomberg.

The selection of Current Archaeology  and National Geographic, popular rather than specialist publications, as media outlets suggests that, as Millett suggests, academic studies have been neglected and a firm emphasis has been developed towards mass entertainment, as the new Bloomberg Space is listed on tourism websites under ‘things to do’ (

I should to comment on the words of (or written for) founder Michael Bloomberg:

As steward of this ancient site and artefacts, Bloomberg has embraced the City of London’s rich heritage. And as a company that is centered on communications – of data, information, news, and analysis – we are thrilled that Bloomberg has been at the core of a project that has provided so much new information about London’s first half-century (’s-oldest-hand-written-documents-released)

The Mithraeum had been in a safe relocation for 63 years. The Bloomberg PR refers to it ‘coming home’. Why is moving it from a public site on Queen Victoria Street nearby to a private site on top of where it was significant? The Mithraeum has nothing to do with the texts, so why show them together?

Some discontent about this is evident in an Evening Standard article (Holland, 2017) which informs readers about the Mithraeum but avoids mentioning Bloomberg. The Wikipedia article on the Mithraeum was recently edited by Bloomberg, adding ‘Visitors will also enjoy a series of contemporary art commissions responding to one of the UK’s most significant archaeological sites’ (Wikipedia edit 19/9/17). Is this a museum, art gallery, or merely a puff for Bloomberg?

The change in emphasis between 2013 and 2016 is startling. In 2016, there was no discussion of the Walbrook site or any artefacts. Box revetments and interesting shoes don’t sell exhibitions. Or make us like intrusive companies.

I see no evidence that Roman culture favoured business at all, the elite authors finding it ‘vulgar’ (Cicero De Officiis); quite a lot was known about the business opportunities at the time of the invasion (Pomponius Mela Chorographia). Greater interest seems to have been shown in mining, a state monopoly (Pliny the Elder Naturalis Historia)
The Bloomberg Space with its permanent exhibition is a perfect form of ‘edutainment’, a portmanteau term coined in 1954: it entertains people by purporting to educate them. The ‘blockbuster’ exhibition is something to tick off the list; tasteful and well-presented with subdued lighting and somewhere to sit. The audience for such exhibitions is usually older and looking for a good day out. To reuse Banksy’s phrase, they ‘exit through the gift shop’. They attend and briefly engage, but leave with a fridge magnet.

A Wall Street Journal article summed it up neatly: ‘Museums are also embracing the ability to use storytelling to engage people … in hopes to increase attendance; all the while, though, it is possible for the focus and purpose of museums to be diluted’ (Gamerman, 2015).

The change in emphasis from serious archaeology to edutainment (‘things to do’), casting early Roman London into a place for swashbuckling capitalism, seems designed to frame Bloomberg as its natural successor. The risks of that were highlighted in 2014 by Ballofet et al., commenting on ‘the appropriateness or potential risks of edutainment’.

Of course, edutainment is nothing new; I could argue that Aeschylus’ Persians was a staged event, while Augustus tells us in his Res Gestae how he reenacted the naval battle of Actium in the arena. What after all is a Roman triumph with its display of captured riches and bedraggled captives but live edutainment?


Primary Sources

Cicero De Officiis 1.42.151, Loeb, (trans. W. Miller, 1989)
Pliny the Elder  Naturalis Historia
Pomponius Mela Chorographia (trans. and ed. F.E. Romer 1998) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Secondary Sources
Angela, A. (2013) The Reach of Rome Trans. G Conti, New York: Random House.
Balloffet, P., Courvoisier, F.H. and Lagier, J. (2014). ‘From Museum to Amusement Park: The Opportunities and Risks of Edutainment’, International Journal of Arts Management. 16 (2).
Bowman, A.K. (1998) Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and its People, London: Routledge.
Cunliffe, B. (1998) Fishbourne Roman Palace, Stroud: Tempus.
Gamerman, E. (2015). "ARENA --- The Museum of The Future --- From 3-D headsets to holograms, new technologies are revolutionizing exhibits; is it entertainment or education?" The Wall Street Journal 16/10/2015.
Gillam, J.P., MacIvor, I & Birley, E. (1954) 'The Temple of Mithras at Rudchester'. Archaeologia Aeliana XXXII, 176-219.
Gillam, J.P. and Richmond, I. (1949) 'Excavations on the Roman site at Corbridge 1946-1949',  Archaeologia Aeliana XXVI, 152.
Grimes, W.F. (1968) Excavation of Roman and Mediaeval London London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Holland, T. (2017) ‘The glory of Ancient Rome is right beneath our streets’ Evening Standard 8/8/17; viewable at  <>
Millett, M. (2016) ‘Improving our understanding of Londinium’ Antiquity, 12/2016, Vol.90(354), pp.1692-1699
Shepherd, J.D. (1998) The Temple of Mithras, London: excavations by W. F. Grimes and A. Williams at the Walbrook London: English Heritage.
Symonds, M. (2013) ‘London’s Pompeii? The rise and fall of a London waterfront’ Current Archaeology 280, May 2013, 12-17.
Symonds, M. (2016) ‘Letters from Londinium: Reading the earliest writing from Roman Britain’ Current Archaeology 317, June 2016, 36-40.
Tomlin, R.O. (2017) Roman London's First Voices: Writing Tablets from the Bloomberg Excavations, 2010-14: 72, Monograph Series; London: Museum of London Archaeology.
White, R. and Barker, P. (1998) Wroxeter: Life and Death of a Roman City Stroud: Tempus.


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(All websites consulted 14/9/17, except Wikipedia (2/10/17))